St. Mary-Oak Ridge pastor Fr. Brent Shelton receives National Catholic Educational Association leadership honor
By Bill Brewer
Father Brent Shelton is both a student and a teacher, which explains his love for education. Catholic education in particular.
Anyone who attends his Masses can attest to how the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge likes to weave history, or science, or language, or sociology, or anthropology, and maybe even a little math into his homilies on Church teaching.
During a recent Sunday Mass at St. Mary, Father Shelton spoke of “our thirst for knowledge,” the “love of knowledge and truth,” and “our search for truth, which is Jesus Christ.”
“Christ is the answer to the question,” Father Shelton told his congregation.
Sister Marie Blanchette Cummings, OP, knows all too well Father Shelton’s penchant for education. The principal of St. Mary School sees it almost daily in the halls, classrooms, gymnasiums, ballfields, and Masses where St. Mary students congregate.
That is why she nominated Father Shelton for the National Catholic Educational Association’s Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award, an honor that highlights the outstanding work being done in Catholic education communities across the country.
Father Shelton is one of three U.S. priests to win the 2021 Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award. In addition, the NCEA selected three principals and three educators for this year’s honor.
Dr. Sedonna Prater, superintendent of Diocese of Knoxville schools, praised Father Shelton and Sister Marie Blanchette for the award.
“I am grateful that Sister Marie Blanchette nominated Father Brent Shelton for this honor because the essence of NCEA’s esteemed Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award is truly illustrated in his visionary leadership and passion for Catholic school education. Father Brent is intentional in his ministry to provide a Catholic school education for all families that desire it for their children and is unwavering in the crucial work of transforming hearts by developing a love for Christ,” Dr. Prater said.
The NCEA award nomination was not a spur-of-the- moment decision for Sister Marie Blanchette. She has been waiting to nominate Father Shelton since 2015.
When the NCEA distributed information about its award program, she was interested in nominating Father Shelton, but the criteria required candidates to be in their positions for at least five years.
“This is Father’s sixth year at St. Mary, so I could submit it this year,” Sister Marie Blanchette said with a sense of relief. “I’ve been in education for 30-plus years, and he has done more for this school than any other school that I have ever been in. I truly do wish that every Catholic school had a pastor as invested in its school as Father Shelton is in ours.”
After arriving at St. Mary Parish and School in 2015 in time for the start of the 2015-16 academic year, Father Shelton set in motion practices he believed would benefit the school. He had told Sister Marie Blanchette that he wanted a priest in classrooms each week.
A priest in classrooms weekly was just one of Father Shelton’s initiatives, according to the school principal, remarking that “he’s just totally invested.”
“He faithfully comes and visits the classrooms, and the kids love it. He immediately had more Masses, including a 6:30 Mass every morning so the Sisters can attend Mass together before we go to our schools. He added more confession times. He said that any person who wanted their child at St. Mary he would make that happen regardless of their ability to pay. He’s present at the athletic events. He’s fixing everything. The security of this building has increased exponentially; we have tons of cameras; the entire campus, all 15 acres, has lights everywhere; we have new security doors; Father put in key card readers to control access to the building,” Sister Marie Blanchette enumerated.
But she singled out one way Father Shelton has had a dramatic impact on the school.
“In Father Shelton’s five-and-a-half years here, we have had enrollment increases. In Father’s first three years here, we had an increase in 37 students. With the pandemic, we have lost some students. Our enrollment increased significantly, though, through Father’s efforts and what the school has been doing,” Sister Marie Blanchette said.
Father Shelton is quick to point out that Sister Marie Blanchette and the Dominican Sisters at St. Mary, together with the faculty and staff, have had a profound effect on the school, including enrollment.
Promoting St. Mary School to families is a constant endeavor and a labor of love for Father Shelton and Sister Marie Blanchette. But they note the challenges involved. The city of Oak Ridge has faced serious changes in recent decades as the federal government greatly reduced its presence in the city it created during World War II. That diminished presence has meant fewer families and fewer families moving in.
Sister Marie Blanchette cited an example of when parents of a young family looked forward to enrolling their three children in St. Mary School. They registered and the children were accepted and assigned to classes. But the parents were unable to find a house in Oak Ridge. They did find a home in West Knoxville and instead registered their children at St. John Neumann School in Farragut.
St. Mary School overcomes challenges like that through perseverance, attention to quality education practices, and a dedication to the Holy Spirit.
Catholic schools, according to Father Shelton, are about investment in children, Catholic communities, and the Catholic Church.
He recalls a conversation he had with his brother about the duties a priest must balance, especially if a priest is managing a school. While there is a cost associated with each student, Father Shelton warned against falling into that trap when assessing the value of a Catholic school.
The St. Mary priest, who is a convert to Catholicism, said his brother underscored the folly of trying to attach a cost to his children and wife as a factor in determining whether to have a family. The analogy applied to Catholic schools.
“He has a wife, he has kids, and he has to find a way to make it work. That is what we should be doing,” Father Shelton said. “I’m hoping this award each year will keep sending out the message to pastors with schools that they can make their schools thrive if they choose to make them thrive. But you have to be 100 percent behind them, or it doesn’t work; 90 percent or 80 percent doesn’t work. You have to be 100 percent behind them, and it will work. That’s what the award means to me.”
And what makes a school work? “The first thing is to say to Jesus periodically, ‘I don’t see how to do this. You’re going to have to help me with this.’ I think a lot of it is talking to people, connecting with people, keeping up the conversations,” he said.
That partnership was especially effective in ridding the neighborhood surrounding St. Mary of a house from where drugs reputedly had been sold for years. Father Shelton worked with law enforcement and community leaders in determining that the residence was a nuisance. Anderson County seized the house, and it was torn down.
Father Shelton works closely with the Hispanic community to promote St. Mary Church and St. Mary School. He finds that not only does communicating with parents prove effective, also as effective is reaching out to St. Mary students, who, by example, have recruited their peers to attend St. Mary.
“I hope I keep articulating what the significance of the school as a ministry of the parish is,” Father Shelton said. “The bottom line is I don’t usually know what to do to make something work, but you just decide you’re going to make it work and you just keep at it, you keep talking to God and other people, until you come up with something.”
There is one thing Father Shelton is fairly certain of: Catholic schools and the children who attend them are vital to the future of the Church.
“More and more studies are showing the benefits of a Catholic school. We already know from the CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) studies that the kids who go through Catholic schools are much more likely to remain good, faithful Catholics throughout their lives. There was a period of decades (1970s, ’80s, and ’90s) when there was a prevailing thought that there was no real benefit to having Catholic schools anymore,” he said.
He pointed out that studies now show a need to challenge that assumption.
“There is a value to them (schools). The kids who go to the schools do receive a formation in the faith that prompts them to remain faithful to the faith throughout their lives. We can just see it. If you go into even the very best CCD programs and then compare the children who are receiving that formation to the children being formed in our Catholic schools, there is a clear difference.
“I think if we want the Catholic faith to thrive in America, then we have to be invested in our schools. We have to be invested in the evangelization of our neighbors, which means lay Catholics need to talk about our faith to non-Catholics. Not coercing them, but inviting them to learn more about the faith,” he said.
“But the ones who are Catholic, the children, the more Catholic their formation, the better. If they are in a Catholic environment, then it’s an environment of virtue, where virtue is taught and promoted. It’s an environment where community values are taught. We focus on (Christian) community. Then there are the spiritual and sacramental opportunities we have during the school day here for the kids, whether it’s going to Mass or processions through the school. It’s a Catholic environment. It just makes sense to me that if parents
have the option, then they would want their children in a Catholic environment all day—a challenging environment in every way. It just makes more sense to have them in that kind of environment than to put them in one that is at best neutral on virtue and God and possibly even at times hostile to virtue and God.
“To me, the choice seems obvious. We just have to keep doing our part to make sure that parents really do have that option,” he added.
Father Shelton converted to Catholicism when he was 17 and living in Texas. He said there wasn’t even a Catholic parish in the county in which he lived.
As a converted Catholic who didn’t attend Catholic school, he compared Catholic education to a diamond, saying you don’t have to possess one to know how valuable it is.
“Even without experiencing that, I could see why that is so critical. From the moment you decide Catholicism is true, everything else falls into place and makes sense,” he said.
Father Shelton, who was ordained by Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz in June 2001, was exposed to Catholic school ministry early in his priesthood. He served as an associate pastor at Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville from 2005 to 2008, where he also ministered at St. Joseph School.
Just as Sister Marie Blanchette described the impact Father Shelton has on students by simply visiting classrooms each week, Father Shelton said the Dominican Sisters have a similar impact being in the school each day. He has enjoyed serving with Dominican Sisters at St. Mary School and emphasized the joy of faith, an expertise in education, and a daily witness for Christ that can last for generations that they bring. Dominican Sisters also serve in education at Knoxville Catholic High School and Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.
“Being here at a school with Sisters makes a huge difference. It improves things considerably because you have a group of people who choose to live in that proximity to each other and that proximity to Christ, who is there in the tabernacle in the convent chapel. So they are a model to the children, the students, but also to parents, to the teachers as people who have a desire to experience and cultivate Christian community. To have that right here is a big deal,” he said, adding that their presence helps to preserve Christianity in the school for decades to come.
The convent for the Dominican Sisters serving in the Knoxville area is located on the St. Mary campus.
“We have that just by having them next door, and that is a huge benefit to the rest of us. Our kids are being formed in a tradition of wisdom, an educational tradition that is over 800 years old. That is remarkable. It’s a true treasure that the children receive being here and receiving that eight centuries of wisdom in their formation.
Father Shelton was caught unaware by the Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award.
“It was a surprise. I’m not a national award kind of person by temperament,” he said. “What I’m hoping is, what I’ve learned from research, conferences I’ve attended, and other pastors I’ve talked to is Catholic schools thrive if we’re fully invested in them. It’s not the surrounding circumstances that make them thrive. It’s the decision to keep them thriving. There are so many great examples like Father (Albert) Henkel (founder of St. Joseph School) and Monsignor (Philip) Thoni (former teacher and coach at Knoxville Catholic High School and a Catholic high school in Memphis), may they rest in peace. They said, ‘We’re going to make this work.’ They were very dedicated to the schools and students.
“What I’m hoping is an award like this, as it’s given each year, will help inspire other priests to see that they can make their schools work. What happens is people tend to do the math. They look at the number of students, they look at the money. They look at those sorts of things and decide whether or not to keep them (schools).”
Sister Marie Blanchette, who was assigned to St. Mary School as principal in 2013, believes Father Shelton’s enthusiasm for Catholic education and St. Mary School is infectious and inspirational.
“He talks about school in his homilies. He promotes the school from the pulpit to our parishioners, whether they’re retired and have no children or grandchildren here. He’s still sharing the message that this is an important ministry of the parish,” she said. “The kids love when Father comes to the school. He is very funny, and just the fact he is giving them time speaks that they are important to him. The kids love Father Shelton. They love Father Pontian (Kiyimba, AJ, St. Mary associate pastor). They love our priests, and it is so important for our students to see them outside of Mass.”
Sister Marie Blanchette is grateful for Father Shelton’s unwavering support for Catholic education in general and St. Mary School in particular. She is especially thankful for his selfless attention to the school and its community.
She pointed out that the Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award is presented to the winners along with a $1,000 check. When informed of the monetary portion of the award, Father Shelton said, “Guess where that is going?”